With her terrific debut feature Bombay Beach, Alma Har'el shines a light on a rarely explored corner of American society and playfully rips up the accepted rules of documentary filmmaking. Her film tells three stories of life in the desolate, mostly abandoned Salton Sea region of California, but far from being a wallow in the misery of poverty, Bombay Beach feels thrillingly alive. Har'el blends everyday reality with imaginative dance sequences to create a film like no other, and when she came to London this week, I met her to talk about a film and a group of people that are very close to her heart.
Bombay Beach is a unique piece of work. How much of the film's form did you have in your head when you first started the project, and how much did it develop during production?
Well, I never studied at film school so I'm not a very cerebral director who sits and thinks, "What does this shot mean?" and "What am I trying to tell?" A lot of times I will do things and it will be like a dream, and you can only analyse it after you've dreamed it. I've been doing that a lot with this film, you know, I've been talking about it for six months and through that I've been understanding so much about what it means to people and what kind of thoughts it brings. It's not that I didn't think about it but I just wasn't so cerebral about the ideas. I did have the idea about a year before to make a documentary with dance sequences because I just adore dance and it has the ability to transcend so many non-verbal nuances. I thought it would be great to take the qualities movement can have and use it to explore things in the lives of people who aren't dancers. So that was something I wanted to do but I didn't know where I was going to do it and I wasn't really being active about finding a place for it. When I got to Bombay Beach I was filming a music video for Beirut, and I was down to this no-budget situation where it was basically me and a camera and no crew, and I had to frantically look for a location as a favour. I was told to check out the Salton Sea and the first place we stopped the car in was the Bombay Beach marina, and I found it so haunting. It immediately makes you feel your own mortality and there's something about it that's beyond reality.
It has this surreal post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It makes you think of movies like Mad Max.
Yes, definitely, and the colours of those faded 50's signs and the boats on the sand. I actually didn't see many people there the first time I went there, but I came back the next day and that was when I met Benny and Mike on the beach. I asked them if they wanted to be in the music video based on a whim. It wasn't planned, I wasn't looking for a kid or anything, but I had a costume in the car that was a mock-up of the Midnight Cowboy costume that Zach Condon was wearing, and I wanted him to be a younger version of the guy that Zach plays in the video. We shot for half an hour at the beach and afterwards I introduced myself and he asked if I wanted to meet his parents, so we spoke and they told me about themselves and how they got there.
If you go on Twitter, by the way, and search for Bombay Beach you'll see people posting photos almost every day, it has nothing to do with the film. Photographers and passers-by just go there to take photos of the sunset because the decay and the way it reflects the light makes for good photos. I thought that so many people come here to shoot every day, but at the same time who lives here? These people must have such stories to tell. Like you say, it's so post-apocalyptic, it looks like they gave up on society or society gave up on them, or like they're the first society after everything was gone, you can let your imagination run. When I saw the music video finished – it was for Concubine by Beirut and the Parrishes were in it – I thought that was the tone and the kind of thing I'd like to film. I tried to get the money for it but I couldn't and I ended up moving there, so I didn't have any characters really apart from the Parrishes when I started.
You mentioned that it was just you and a camera, and I did notice when the credits rolled that there was hardly any crew listed.
There was no crew. My choreographer came out a few times and she was a great partner to me – her name is Paula Present and she worked with me on Elephant Gun, which was a music video I made with Beirut – so she came out to help me with the dances. Apart from that there was no crew, but that was what made it so intimate and gave me so much freedom. Nobody asked me "What does this mean? Why do you want to do that?" You know, all those things people like to ask. [laughs]
How did you capture such natural behaviour? I always wonder when you point a camera at someone how conscious they are of it and how much they are truly being themselves.
That's up to the filmmaker in the editing room, I think, to recognise something that captures some essence of this person or captures some essence of what this person would like to be, and that's part of who he is because everybody has their own story they tell themselves. Those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are a big part of who we are, and part of the process is knowing that story. I think a lot of filmmakers say "I know who this person is and I'm going to show the real side of them" – but people don't know who they are themselves, so how would I know who they are? I don't know who I am. I was trying to capture something more fluid about who we are, who we present ourselves to be, who we would like to be, who I think they are, things they said to me that echoed as fantasies – all these things together, and to not differentiate or pretend that one is more important than the other.
You said you didn't have any characters beyond the Parrishes when you went there. How long did it take you to find Red and Ceejay?
For the first two months or month and a half, I was filming a lot of people but was already filming Ceejay and the Parrishes. The Parrishes were for sure my main subject and my main collaborators and friends, and I asked them to think of other people I could film. Ceejay lived on the same street as them and I started filming him and a few of his friends, but at that point I didn't know if he would be the centre or his friends. He had two friends who were two adopted brothers, each of them adopted from another family, and I really liked filming them but they moved away from Bombay Beach after a month and a half, because their mother had cancer and they had to go and live with her somewhere else. At first it was more of a group of children and Ceejay was just one of them, but slowly he became a very prominent character.
I didn't meet Red until I had been filming for a couple of months. I was filming another character called Marty, who is a hitchhiker – that's what he calls himself, Marty the Hitchhiker – and he has been a hitchhiker for three or four years. He told me about Red, he said, "I hitchhiked with this guy named Red and we went on a really long trip for two weeks. He has a lot of great stories about America, he used to work on the oilfields," and the minute I met Red I knew had to be in it. I didn't what I was going to do with him, at first I thought he would just be a narrator, and the first thing I did with him was to just take him to the beach and ask him about things. They were very abstract things that I was interested in generally – what is love, what is friendship, what is responsibility, what is childhood? – as open as possible with no guidance. He had this earnest American wisdom with a twist, this depression-era language, he was so fascinating, and I had so much fun just listening to him. I recorded hours of him talking about things and started to use them as narration here and there, but slowly he also became a character because things started to happen to him and he allowed me into his life. At first he was very strict with me, he would say, "I'm very busy, I have a full schedule. You can see me Tuesday at 6pm for half an hour" [laughs] but I think he trusted me more and more over time. All of this stuff still informs my relationship with them, I'm still in touch with them all. They all had a lot of progress in their lives after their film, but I don't want to take credit for it, because certain things had nothing to do with the film, like Ceejay got a full scholarship at University of Minnesota and left Bombay Beach.
I thought his story was the most interesting in some ways, because we look at Bombay Beach and see such a poverty-stricken place, but it was his salvation. If he had stayed in LA he may have suffered the same fate as his cousin.
If there is an American Dream turned upside on its head, then it's him. He came from Los Angeles, the "City of Dreams" as Hollywood suggests it can be, to the poorest ghost town in California, and through being there he managed to get a college scholarship and a step towards the life that he wants. I thought that was so wacky.
It's a great tale of a person finding his own path through life.
And I feel that they are all doing that. They all have their path, and as tragic as some of it is it can also be inspiring. Benny is off all the medication now and in therapy, not all the time but once in a while in LA. Red is still there, he built solar panels so now he has electricity. I try to see them all as much as I can, I visited Ceejay in Minnesota but mostly we talk on Twitter and texting, Benny I see a lot when he comes to LA, but I think it's funny, out of all the characters I think the person that feels he needs me more is Red. He's the person I least thought would think like that.
It's so good to hear that Benny is off the medication but you look at him and wonder how many other kids there are like him in America. He's symptomatic of a whole generation.
There are so many, so many. They say it's two out of three. It's the most horrific industry, making money on the back of helpless parents and children. I mean I'm not against medication, I'm on medication, but it's so light-handed and comes with no therapy. The solution that it offers is so elusive and some of the parents are so uneducated about what they're actually doing to their children and what results to expect. They start to wait for the medication to change their child into something it's not. It was really hard to film and hard to watch.
How did you work with Benny, Ceejay and Red on the dance sequences? I was wondering how easy it was to persuade someone like Red to get involved in that.
Red was really into it, actually.
Really? Was he a dancer in his younger days?
He was, he used to do line-dancing. He had this girlfriend for six years who he said was the biggest love of his life. She died of cancer but they used to go line-dancing together, that's how they met. I would say the only person that wasn't into the dancing was Mike, Benny's dad. There are no dances in the film with him, although there is a dance we did with the whole family that's on the special features on the DVD. I didn't feel comfortable putting it in because it was the first dance I shot and it didn't really grow out of the characters, it was just something I did, whereas all the other dances came out of knowing them or were scenes that I then went back and choreographed a dance for. I did use some of the movements from that dance in the opening sequence; I don't know if you remember, but there were the blue gloves and when he crushes a can of beer, but at the time I didn't know I was going to use Bob Dylan and Beirut and I did it to a song called Blue Room, sung by Chet Baker. It was so beautiful but when I watched it back it just didn't stand as something that felt driven by the characters and it was very much a music video.
I guess I expected more resistance because you're really asking a lot from them, to express things they've never expressed before and in a way they've never expressed it before.
It was huge, but the biggest thing for me was that they totally understood what I was doing. You think, these people have no artistic background sitting in this ghost town, and obviously they have TVs and Playstations and stuff, but you have no idea what their perception is of performance or art or anything. When we were choreographing the dances there wasn't a moment when they didn't understand the story I was trying to tell, and it really surprised me, I have to say. I don't mean that to be condescending to them, but I couldn't imagine they would be so collaborative, and that actually drove me to take out the sequences that felt more imposed, although there are a few sequences that are done for me as much as for them. I know a lot of people criticise the film for that, taking these people and using them as props, but I think there are so many films that are much more pure documentary and my intention was to never make a documentary, per se. I was interested in exploring certain things for myself, things like relationships and chaos and dysfunctionality and families – the things that I grew up with.
There's this one scene with Benny and the children and as a kid I was so tormented by other kids. In particular, there was this one girl at school who told everybody not to talk to me and I had to deal with that for a few years. When I showed my film at Tribeca there was someone from my school in Israel who saw it in New York and she said she really thought about what we went through when she saw the film, because she also went through some stuff like that with that specific girl. She contacted me on Facebook and we exchanged emotional emails for a while over it, but I did that sequence to explore that feeling of being shut out by other children and not knowing where they're coming from. I mean, those two girls who tell Benny he has no class - come on, they live in a caravan that's actually a lot worse than his house, you know? It was very emotional to do that stuff.
That's the kind of thing that speaks to a lot of audience members, because kids can be really cruel.
Oh my God, they're just....there's this comedian in the US called Louis CK and he always says, "Kids are assholes to each other" and it's so true. [laughs]
Before I go I want to ask you about your next project, which is called I Wuv You.
[Laughs] That name started as a joke and now I'm like, "What is that?" I was writing the proposition for a grant and a friend of mine texted me and wrote, "I wuv you." I had never heard it before and I know it's kind of a cutesy way that kids say "I love you," but it seemed so perfect because in a way the film is about how you were as a kid and how you saw love.
From the description I read it seems you're going to explore that boundary between reality and performance again.
I didn't even do it yet and it's so weird to talk about something you haven't done yet, so hopefully it will happen, but the idea is to externalise the inner dialogue we have with ourselves when we try to make crucial decisions about our love lives. I think so many of us are caught in our heads between what our formative years informed us about love, the fantasy of what we want love to be or what we want ourselves to be in a relationship, and then there's this grownup self we haven't met yet who we're worried about turning out a certain way. We're trying to negotiate between these two people that we're not, you know? So in the film I want to have your young self or old self come into your life and have discussions, either with each other or with you, about your relationship and that will be weaved together with real documentary moments. We'll see how that goes... [laughs]
It sounds like you're still working this one out.
Totally! It's so abstract. I have no idea what's going to happen, it's all just talking, but I'm really into it and I feel it's something I do all the time. I feel that's the best way for me to do things, to just approach things I'm interested in, and I do love the idea of performance in general. I saw the British film The Arbor two weeks ago and it was so good.
There are a lot of exciting films like that coming out now that don't feel restricted by the documentary form.
I know, fuck form. [laughs] it's just so boring! I feel bad for festival programmers sometimes because they have to put it into categories, but they're the only people I can think of who would care. I mean, you're just setting out to do a film. Why would you want to define it?
Buy Bombay Beach on DVD here